Deciphering Syrian intent

Ex-negotiator Ben-Aharon still doesn't know what Syrians mean by 'peace.'

Yossi Ben Aharon 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yossi Ben Aharon 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One day in early 1992, as Israeli and Syrian delegations were conducting negotiations in Washington following the Madrid conference, the Syrian team began to recite a well-worn narrative about how Israel, the perpetual aggressor, seized the Golan Heights without any reason in the world. There was a moment during that particular conversation, remembers Yossi Ben-Aharon, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's chief of staff at the time and head of the Israeli delegation at the talks, when Muwafiq Allaf, his Syrian counterpart sitting on the other side of the negotiating table, was carrying on in a particular grandiose fashion about Israel's transgressions. "He said we were the aggressors, and that they were pure and righteous and only defending their territory," Ben-Aharon says, doing an imitation of Allaf's pronunciation of the word "territory," making it sound as if the word has five "r"s. "Our territory is not negotiable," he quoted the then Syrian ambassador to Washington as saying. "So you have to tell me you are withdrawing from the last inch of Syrian territory." At one point during the monologue, as Allaf continued his charges and presented the Syrians as peaceful victims, one of the Israeli officials on the team, Yigal Carmon, at the time a Military Intelligence officer, pushed a button on a cassette recorder, and a song broadcast on Damascus Radio just before the Six Day War started to play. The song's repetitive chorus was "Kill, kill, kill the Jews." Allaf was surprised, but quickly gained his composure. "Mr. Ben-Aharon," he said. "We are conducting serious negotiations, and you are doing this type of thing." But that "type of thing," Ben-Aharon told The Jerusalem Post last week soon after Israel, Syria and Turkey announced a resumption of indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations, was not a silly gimmick, but rather an important way to keep the Syrians on the defensive, to show them that despite their claims of being blameless victims, Israel had documents of their intentions before the Six Day War of plans to march to Haifa, and examples - such as that song - of incitement to slaughter the Jews. Ben-Aharon remembers this incident when asked what advice he has for the current Israeli negotiators - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman - regarding how best to negotiate with the Syrians. Granted, Israel is right now only dealing with the Syrians through Turkish mediators, but the stated goal is for the two sides, in the not too distant future, to sit across from each other again in direct talks, just as Ben-Aharon and Allaf did all those years ago. And when that happens, Ben-Aharon says, the Israeli side would be wise to keep a number of things in mind. First of all, he says, the team needs to be impeccably prepared. "I say this because I saw how well prepared the Syrians were. You have to be at least as good as they are." Ben-Aharon had worked closely with Shamir for some 10 years when he was tabbed as head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Syrians. He was first head of Shamir's bureau when he was foreign minister, then served as foreign policy adviser when Shamir became prime minister, and then as his trusted chief of staff. The Egyptian-born Ben-Aharon is also a trained Arabist, who worked in that capacity at the Israeli Embassy in Washington for six years, five of them under ambassador Yitzhak Rabin. "Sometimes negotiations are all about scoring points," Ben-Aharon says, drinking both soda and a cup of tea in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel. And this is especially true if the negotiating process is more about the process itself than about actually reaching an agreement - something he says was as true today as it was back then. "You better know how to score points, in case that is all that remains from the negotiations," he says. The Syrians view negotiations as a continuous competition, Ben-Aharon says. "They very subjectively brief the Syrian public, and the Arab public and the press, and start from the premise that nothing in the end will come of the negotiations. As a result, they want to use the opportunity to underline the weakness of our position, and the strength of their own." The Israeli negotiators, he says, need to combat that, by scoring points on their own. Ben-Aharon says that in Syrian eyes the negotiations are as much an exercise in strengthening their international position vis-a-vis the West and the Arab world as they are about reaching a peace agreement. And the Turks, he says, want to midwife the current process to serve their own vested interests. "Why is Turkey volunteering for this role?" he asks. "Because Turkey is moving toward Islamization and is having problems with the West. Ask any Turk who knows these things what is the best way to influence Washington, and he will say through Jerusalem. Turkey knows there are many in Europe now opposed to letting it into the EU because of the growing Islamization there, and they want to break the wall - both in Europe and the US. And how do they do that? By playing a 'constructive' role here." When going into the negotiations, Ben-Aharon says, the Israeli team must make it their "business to know everything under the sun about their interlocutors - who they are, their positions, their backgrounds, Syria itself, the positions Syria took in previous rounds of negotiations, going back in history at least to the end of the Ottoman period." The Syrians, he says, will constantly and readily refer to the different border demarcations over the years: as it appeared in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement; the border between Syria and Mandatory Palestine as affixed by the British and French in 1923; the armistice lines at the end of the War of Independence; those same lines as they appear on the armistice map of 1949; the June 4, 1967 lines; and the cease fire lines after both the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. "The Syrians are sticklers with regards to the historical background that strengthens their position in the negotiations and are very strong in overlooking that which weakens their position," Ben-Aharon says with a chuckle. "They talk about withdrawal to the June 4 lines, because they captured territory from 1949 to 1967, and they want it, even though it goes beyond the international border between Syria and Mandatory Palestine." Indeed, the Syrians are demanding a complete Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines, while the line that Rabin indicated to the US in 1993 to which he would be willing to withdraw in exchange for full peace and security guarantees was the international armistice line. This is a difference of only about 66 square kilometers, but it is the difference between the Syrians being able to dangle their toes in the Kinneret, thus having a foothold on Israel's major water source, and being pushed away from the water line. "You have to know the material, because if you begin to discuss the territorial question, and you claim x and y, you have to know what x and y is, and you have to know how to explain it, and know how to attack them when they ask even more than the borders from the Ottoman period." And then, harking back to Carmon and his tape recorder, Ben-Aharon stresses that it is essential to be armed. "I'm speaking here from experience," says Ben-Aharon, who is now retired from public service and writes occasional op-ed pieces for Ma'ariv. "Sometimes you say things during the negotiations, and while you are saying them, you are thinking about what will be reported; what you will release when you leave the room." This concern of what comes out of the negotiating room is more important when the negotiations are more about process than substance. In that case, he says, it is important to be ready with vast material - "ammunition" - that can be used in the room and then reported to the press afterward to dominate headlines. Ben-Aharon says that it is also essential for the Israeli negotiators to peg down what the Syrians mean when they say peace. While he says the Syrian negotiators will repeat "withdrawal from the Golan Heights" as a mantra, Israel needs to demand to know what exactly it gets in return. What does peace mean for the Syrians? Indeed, Ben-Aharon says that while the press is fixating on whether it is possible to pull Syria out of Iran's orbit, the more critical question of the negotiations is whether Syria can be weaned from a desire to destroy Israel "even if it takes 100 years." In an article he wrote in the Middle East Review of International Affairs in 2000, Ben-Aharon stated that his impression at the end of his seven months as chief negotiator - he was replaced by Itamar Rabinovitch when Rabin became prime minister in 1992 - was that the only accommodation Syria could accept was "one that would drastically reduce Israel's capacity to defend itself from an attack by its Arab neighbors." In other words, in his mind Syria wanted a return of the Golan Heights not because it would facilitate peace with Israel, but rather as a tactic to weaken Israel, thus making the country's eventual dismemberment that much easier. Regarding the Iranian question, Ben-Aharon says he is sure that Syrian envoys sent to Teheran recently probably went with the following message: "What do these talks matter to you - we are gaining, and you are not losing anything. We are not giving up anything that is important to both of us, or damaging the alliance." At one time during the period when he was leading the negotiations, Ben-Aharon says the Israeli team prepared a document - a "non-paper" - that tried to define areas of agreement between the two sides. For example, the document stipulated that both sides recognized the other's legitimacy and right to exist, and that the objective of the negotiations was a just and lasting agreement, a peace treaty between the two sides. After the Syrian response to the document was simply that Israel must withdraw from Syrian territory, Ben-Aharon says he replied that while he was not evading the territorial issue, he wanted to know how Damascus imagined peace between the two countries would be translated into reality. The telling conversation went like this: Allaf: "You are putting the cart before the horse; this will be the outcome of the territorial issue." Ben-Aharon: "No, my friend, I am not requiring of you diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel, that will come at the end of the process, it will accompany the signature of the agreement. All I'm asking of you is this: Who are you negotiating with? We, for example, recognize the legitimacy and right of existence of the Arab Republic of Syria. Can you tell me the same with regard to Israel?" Allaf: "You are just playing with words, this is the end product." Ben-Aharon: "Mr. Allaf, who are you negotiating with?" Allaf: "Are you joking with me? I am negotiating with Yossi Ben-Aharon, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office." Ben-Aharon: "Of which state?" Allaf: "Of what you call Israel." And therein, in Ben-Aharon's mind, lies the huge rub. Were his advice sought out by the current negotiating team - it hasn't been - he would say they must speak bluntly and simply to the Syrians from the outset. The Israeli team, he says, should enter the room on the first day of talks and say the following: "We have already done this a number of times, and don't want to tread water. We are not going to give you what you think you have in your pocket [a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights]. We are wary of you: You want these negotiations to achieve other aims - open windows to the West, break your isolation, allow you to focus on Lebanon. "Either tell us now clearly how you envision peace and security, or we will go outside and say, 'This was a trick,' that you wanted to deceive us, the West and the Syrian public; that you don't intend real negotiations, that you don't want peace - either because you are too weak, or too indebted to the Iranians. Whatever, that's not our issue. Give us a clear answer." The problem, Ben-Aharon says, is that while Syria believes it has a commitment from Rabin dating back to 1993 for a full withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace, Israel does not to this day know what the Syrians have to offer, what they mean by "peace." And it would be wise, he says, for Israel to find out before moving any further. Otherwise, the talks will already start off on an asymmetrical footing.